“Shabaab is in trouble,” said Ken Menkhaus, Professor of Political Science at Davidson College and a specialist on Somalia and the Horn of Africa. “It has been pushed out of almost all of the urban areas that it once controlled, including the very important seaport of Kismayo, which was a major source of its revenue.”
Mr. Menkhaus said that the real challenge for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is shifting “from war fighting against Shabaab to peacekeeping in areas that it has liberated. It is going to need to provide an environment that is secure, so that people feel as safe or safer than they did than when Shabaab controlled it.” He said that “AMISOM is certainly stretched right now” and a lot of new challenges are going to be “more political than military.”
Security remains the most obvious challenge in Somalia. “[The government] has to start to gain control over the many security forces that are nominally hatted as part of the government, which in fact are autonomous from the government and do not answer to a chain of command,” Mr. Menkhaus said. “Until it does that, it’s in a very precarious position. It also is going to have to start generating revenues–it currently does not have money.”
On piracy, he said, “Piracy attempts remain very high, but successful piracy has dropped way off, and what that’s done is it has produced a situation in which frustrated pirates are now increasingly turning to on-land criminality to make a livelihood, and that really underscores the point you made, that even if piracy is resolved at sea, it’s going to plague Somalia in other ways unless there are livelihoods.”
When asked what the international community can do to support the end of foreign domination in Somalia, Mr. Menkhaus said, “Somalia is going to need considerable external support for the foreseeable future… If the assistance that is offered comes in the package of lots of conditionality and lots of demands and lots of top-down orders from the international donors, it is going to go down badly, and it is not going to work. So we need to find a way to provide the maximum support that Somalis need, while giving the Somalis maximum ownership of this recovery process.”
The interview was conducted by John Hirsch, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
John Hirsch: I am here today with Ken Menkhaus, Professor of Political Science at Davidson College and a specialist on Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Thank you, Ken, for joining us on the Global Observatory today.
Professor Menkhaus, this summer saw a dramatic, rushed, yet ultimately successful conclusion of the long transitional administration in Somalia. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, you refer to the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president as a possible beginning of a Somali version of the Arab Spring, and attributed his surprising victory to the revitalized civil society in Somalia. What in your view is the significance of President Mohamud’s election?
Ken Menkhaus: First, I would say, that the answer to the question I posed in that article is, in fact, we don’t know if this will be a Somali version of the Arab Spring. What we do know is that there are significant differences. The Arab Spring was based on popular uprisings, whereas in Somalia what we saw was a civic mobilization of elites, what I call the constructive elites, the elites in Somalia who over the past twenty years have stayed, and they’ve built hospitals, and they’ve built universities, and charities, and businesses. That group mobilized to try to take control of an election process, not so much to elect Hassan Sheikh–that came later–but more committed to removing the old transitional government, which they saw as corrupt and problematic.
JH: Security clearly remains one of the most obvious challenges in Somalia. How effective is AMISOM’s campaign to extend security and control to the entirety of Somalia. What more is needed to strengthen AMISOM, and both militarily as well as politically speaking, how is Al-Shabaab affected by the growing military pressure and by the formation of the new government?
KM: Let me start first with the end of your question. Shabaab is in trouble, it has been pushed out of almost all of the urban areas that it once controlled, including the very important seaport of Kismayo, which was a major source of its revenue. It has now essentially retreated into the rural hinterland of southern Somalia. It still controls a lot of rural southern Somalia, but it no longer controls many of the strategic places it did before. It is also in trouble because the new post-transition government is popular, it is seen as an alternative to Shabaab, and that hurts Shabaab, because in the past, Shabaab was able to cash in, in some ways, on Somali unhappiness with the transitional federal government, which was quite corrupt, and that’s no longer an option for Shabaab.
In terms of AMISOM’s capacity and its role: AMISOM is certainly stretched right now. It is engaged in military operations in a number of different parts of the country. If it continues to pursue Shabaab into some of the remaining rural enclaves that it has, that is going to stretch AMISOM. It is certainly going to need more support for its military campaigns.
But the real challenge for AMISOM is shifting now, from war-fighting against Shabaab to peacekeeping in areas that it has liberated. It is going to need to provide an environment that is secure, so that people feel as safe or safer than they did than when Shabaab controlled it. It’s going to have to referee the many clan conflicts over who controls these liberated areas, and it’s going to have to help support local administrations and local security to govern these areas. In other words, a lot of the new challenges are going to be more political than military for AMISOM.
JH: Besides security, there are clearly, from what you have already said, there are other pressing challenges that the new president faces. Somali was ranked last, as the most corrupt country in the world on the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, and a comprehensive constitution-making process still needs to be carried out to replace the current provisional constitution. What priorities does the new government have to set, and who could spoil progress?
KM: The government has set some priorities, and certainly combating corruption in the government is one of them, but before it can combat corruption, it has to actually gain control over the state resources, which it doesn’t even have yet. This is a government that is presiding over an administration that is populated by the old transitional government. Some of these individuals will need to be replaced; that will be sensitive.
The top priority for the government right now is security. It has to start to gain control over the many security forces that are nominally hatted as part of the government, which in fact are autonomous from the government and do not answer to a chain of command. Until it does that, it’s in a very precarious position. It also is going to have to start generating revenues–it currently does not have money. That means it can’t pay salaries. Those are two top priorities.
Once it settles that, it’s priorities are going to be to address the issue of who governs liberated space, that’s a major flashpoint in Somalia, and it’s going to have to deal with the many unfinished transitional tasks that the old government did not complete, including review and amendment of the interim constitution, which begs lots of fundamental questions about who rules in Somalia, and the flash point issue there, more than any other, is the definition of an operationalization of federalism.
JH: Piracy, while primarily addressed at the international level through the prism of security, is a problem which requires a multifaceted strategy to address the multitude of economic and other root causes, which can be found on land rather than on water. The debates on piracy off the coast of Somalia seem to be dominated by military and naval strategists. But what in your opinion needs to be done by the new government, and what can be done by the new government to finally develop viable alternative livelihoods that reduce the incentives for Somalis to engage in piracy?
KM: Piracy is an interesting case in Somalia because of the international naval patrols and the rise of private security forces that many shipping companies now use when they’re passing through the dangerous waters beyond Somalia’s shoreline.
Piracy attempts remain very high, but successful piracy has dropped way off, and what that’s done is it has produced a situation in which frustrated pirates are now increasingly turning to on-land criminality to make a livelihood, and that really underscores the point you made, that even if piracy is resolved at sea, it’s going to plague Somalia in other ways unless there are livelihoods.
Now the challenge is this: many people say, what we need to do is job creation and training to essentially demobilize the pirates–and the problem there is that you run the risk of moral hazard. You reward the bad behavior that the pirates have engaged in, while many other Somalis remain unemployed.
So the solution really can only be promotion of broad-based economic recovery in places like Puntland, in the northeast of Somalia where the piracy is concentrated, and that is going to require, first and foremost, better security and better governance. Good governance, good security will attract investment, both from the Somali diaspora and from abroad, and that will, I think, give the economy the kind of space it needs to grow.
JH: Finally, what should the role of the international community be more broadly speaking? There have been, as you know, countless conferences, summits, externally driven initiatives that have taken place over the last decades, with real progress remaining elusive. So given the strong sense in Somalia of wanting to end foreign domination, what can the international community constructively and reasonably do to enable Somalis to assert themselves and rebuild their own society?
KM: Somalia is going to need considerable external support for the foreseeable future. The African Union peacekeepers are not going to be in a position to leave anytime soon. They’re the sole guarantors of security in big parts of Somalia. International aid is going to be required for economic recovery. So there are plenty of roles that the international community will need to play.
The key, in my view, is to provide that assistance in ways that maximize Somali ownership. Somalis have been through twenty years of a loss of sovereignty, twenty years of foreign domination, either through peacekeeping operations or military occupations or lots and lots of well-meaning external assistance that has essentially been telling them what to do for two decades.
If the assistance that is offered comes in the package of lots of conditionality and lots of demands and lots of top-down orders from the international donors, it is going to go down badly, and it is not going to work. So we need to find a way to provide the maximum support that Somalis need, while giving the Somalis maximum ownership of this recovery process.
JH: These are many challenges in what hopefully will be a new opportunity for the people of Somalia to move forward beyond the calamities of the last twenty years, so thank you very much for speaking with the Global Observatory today.
Photo credit: New American Foundation